The landowners

What should we do with this plot of land? Isn't it too big for us?

Elizabeth Whitehead

John Whitehead

In 1825, landowner John Whitehead made a pivotal choice that opened up a new possibility for Black New Yorkers. Whitehead, who claimed property between Eighty-fifth and Eighty-eighth Street close to Seventh Avenue, divided his territory and sold individual plots to intrigued purchasers. Andrew Williams and Epiphany Davis bought the main plots from the Whiteheads in September 1825; Williams chose three plots on September 27th, for which he paid $125; and, around the same time, Davis acquired twelve plots for $578. Presently, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion assembly picked six connecting tracts. From this founding action, Seneca Village was built.

This is a map of Seneca Village in 1838. This map shows the land owned by Epiphany Davis, William Pease, George Root, and Andrew Williams.

Why did some people purchase land in upper Manhattan, near and in Seneca Village?

The First Reason

It was no accidental event that Andrew Williams, Epiphany Davis, and the AME Zion Church obtained their territory. It appears that there was a collected effort to secure this land, which implies a solid coalition within the Black populace and their desire to make a space for themselves. African American groups in New York had customarily based their communities in proximity to houses of worship and, as Black individuals rushed northward, Seneca Village would be no special case.

Since Williams and Davis were individuals from Zion Church, their activities were likely a deliberate exertion. In any case, the movement to make Seneca Village was not entirely a religious development. Since the beginning of liberation, Black New Yorkers had worked inside organizations like the African Society to amass property and coalesce into a purposeful community. As Williams and Davis were likewise individuals from the African Society, within weeks of their interest in northern Manhattan, other African Society individuals, such as Samuel Hardenburgh, soon joined Williams and Davis. The African Society had displayed a propensity for acquiring land since 1820; and after amassing enough land to solidify the foundation of a large Black neighborhood, its members had finally achieved their goal. However, these land endeavors did not end in lower Manhattan; African Society individuals, followed by a variety of other Black New Yorkers, gradually relocated northward to build Seneca Village.

The Second Reason

Since African Americans were subjected to the most squalid lodging conditions in the downtown neighborhoods, those with the money seized the opportunity to move to an open, breezy, and rustic space in northern Manhattan. This is one of numerous reasons why African Americans started to settle "uptown" in the Seneca Village zone. A move far from the dull basement flats and damp apartments to family-friendly plots of land with wooden houses, with soil that could be worked by the families or individuals themselves, seemed much more appealing to African Americans.

The Third Reason

Another explanation behind the migration northward was that land was much cheaper. Because the land in downtown Manhattan was extremely expensive, most African American workers could not afford it. Thus, most African Americans who wanted to gain suffrage bought land in upper Manhattan, near and in Seneca Village. The New York State Constitution of 1821 required African American men to own $250 in property in order to be eligible to vote. A large portion of these African American landowners lived in the downtown section of the city, yet more and more began constructing their homes uptown in Seneca Village.

A wood engraving print image of African American men voting by A.R. Waud

What did they do with the land they purchased?

Within fifteen years, as occupants built homes, greenhouses, and horse shelters, Seneca Village expanded to an impressive degree. The 1838 map of the community demonstrates an assortment of property proprietors, extending from individuals who claimed multiple plots flaunting magnificent and impressive homes to individuals who possessed a solitary plot with a little cabin.

 

For instance, the African Society member Epiphany Davis claimed seventeen plots of land and developed two three-story homes on her property that more likely than not were the envy of the residents. Similarly, George Root controlled nine plots whereupon he developed a few structures. In addition to a horse shelter, stable, and shed, Root constructed a two-story building that extended the whole length of one tract. Andrew Williams claimed three plots, yet he raised two structures that were more than two stories high.

Regardless of these noteworthy cases, there were numerous properties that stood vacant or just contained a little building city authorities depicted as a "shack." William Pease was one such landowner; he obtained a solitary parcel but was not able to bear the cost of developing a new building. African American female property proprietors Sarah and Cornelia Reed were in similar conditions; they were perhaps saving up the necessary funds to finally construct buildings upon their land plots in Seneca Village. William Pease and the Reeds were some of the people who yearned to be property owners but were not able to become proprietors due to poverty. Their stories represented the polarized economic states of New York's Black populace and the yearning to solidify a strong African American community regardless of economic background and status.